Houses, Building Forests:
AU's Rural Studio Blueprint for West Alabama Forestry Project
|Innovative designs, unusual architectural
techniques, and offbeat construction materials are the distinguishing
characteristics of homes and community facilities built by
Rural Studio students. A sharply angled roof, which is designed
to allow rainwater to collect in a cistern, has earned this
rural Hale County home a nickname as the “Butterfly
may have been times, in those sorrowful final hours of 2001 and
the first dark days of 2002, when some seriously questioned what
the future held for Auburn University’s Rural Studio.
nine years, the Rural Studio had given AU architecture students
the opportunity to make a dramatic difference in the lives in
Alabama’s impoverished Hale County, by putting their education,
their skills, and their spirits into designing and building low-cost
innovative houses and community spaces using recycled, salvaged,
and donated materials.
on Dec. 30, 2001, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee died. Mockbee
was co-founder and co-director of the Rural Studio—in essence,
the very heart and soul of the program.
death shocked us all, and there was a lull there for a little
while,” admitted Bruce Lindsey, head of Auburn’s School
of Architecture and current co-director of the Rural Studio.
students and faculty of the Rural Studio came to grips with their
loss, however, there grew a renewed commitment to take the revolutionary,
nationally acclaimed teaching program to new heights.
had put together a very forward-thinking group of people who could
carry the Rural Studio onward,” Lindsey said.
so they have done, as is evidenced by the growing number of unusual
dwellings and innovative community spaces that are dotting the
rural west Alabama landscape.
Rural Studio—a satellite campus, of sorts, of AU’s
College of Design, Architecture, and Construction—was the
brainchild of Mockbee and fellow AU architecture professor D.K.
Ruth. The two came up with the basic concept for a hands-on teaching/community
service program in 1992; a year later, a $250,000 grant from the
Alabama Power Foundation made the dream a reality.
the decade since, more than 300 select AU architecture students
have given up typical college life on the main campus to spend
one to two semesters studying, working, and living at the studio’s
student-built facilities in Newbern, Alabama. There, they’ve
learned lessons they never could have been taught in a traditional
classroom. They have learned to be what Mockbee called “citizen
should be about giving people places to live, instead of creating
monuments to yourself,” Mockbee was often quoted as saying.
That’s why he demanded that Rural Studio students become
interim residents of rural Hale County.
in the community is a very important part of this program,”
Lindsey said. “For virtually all of the students who go,
this kind of poverty is beyond what any of them would ever have
imagined. Being part of the community is the only way they can
truly understand the needs of their clients and the environment
they live in.”
academic year, about 30 second-year and 15 fifth-year AU architecture
students participate in the Rural Studio, along with four to six
graduate students from other universities and other disciplines
who are enrolled in the studio’s relatively new non-credit
Outreach Studio program.
second-year students spend one semester—half of them the
fall semester and the other half spring—in Hale County,
where they design and build a “charity house” that
they give away, no strings attached, to a destitute family that
the students select from several families on a list provided by
the Hale County Department of Human Resources. Close connections
between the students and their adopted family ensure that the
charity house design incorporates the family’s needs and
The walls of Yancey Chapel are built
recycled tires that a local tire dealer donated to
the Rural Studio. The roof is covered with tin,
the roof beams are salvaged from an old house,
and the floor is made of rocks taken from a
The innovative designs,
unusual construction techniques, and offbeat and donated materials
hold the total costs of each charity house to an average of $20,000
the fifth-year students, all of whom are working on their theses,
form teams and undertake community service projects that have
included chapels, ball fields, parks, playgrounds, community centers,
and farmers’ markets.
of the Rural Studio’s charity houses—this year’s
students are nearing completion of the eighth—as well as
the community facilities are startling in design and construction.
the Butterfly House, for instance, so called for its dramatic,
sharply angled roof, which, by the way, is designed to catch rainwater.
Then there’s the Bryant “Hay Bale” House, constructed
of stucco-covered hay bales; the Lucy House, with walls built
of old office-building carpet tiles; the Shiles House and Yancey
Chapel, both strikingly designed and built of used tires; and
the Mason’s Bend Community Center the remarkable roof of
which is made of salvaged car windshields.
all of the charity house recipients live below the poverty level,
Rural Studio students design the houses to operate as efficiently
as possible. Wood-burning stoves warm the houses in the winter;
natural ventilation systems—evidenced by the studio’s
trademark “big roof” design—keep them cool in
the hot summer months.
strictly through grants, foundations, and individual support in
its first decade, the Rural Studio got a major boost and endorsement
this year when, for the first time, AU funded the studio’s
are thrilled to have the university’s financial support
now,” Lindsey said. “It definitely enhances our sense
Through the years, the
Rural Studio has made its way several times into the national
spotlight, having been featured on Oprah, Nightline, and CBS News,
and in Time and People magazines, among others. Its uniqueness
has led some to misclassify it as a socio-economic development
program or a program similar to Habitat for Humanity. But from
the beginning, Mockbee insisted that the program’s number
one goal is educating students.
As he said in a Southern
Living interview shortly before his death, his goal was for graduates
of the studio to “realize at some point that their talent
and experience and knowledge can make a difference in the world;
that they can contribute in some decent way to make a community
a better place to live.”
By its very nature,
the Rural Studio—with its use of off-the-wall building materials,
its emphasis on connecting with and meeting the needs of people
in the community, and the significant difference it is making
in the quality of life in the Hale County area—has earned
a reputation in the architectural world as “a model of sustainable
Now, using the Rural
Studio as a model, an AU associate professor of forestry is on
a mission to make poverty-stricken, timber-dependent Hale County
a “model of sustainable forestry.”
Mark Dubois of Auburn’s
School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences said a three-year study
he is proposing would be what’s known as a participatory
research project and would focus on timber landowners in rural
Hale County, specifically the small-tract owners.
would live in the community, like the Rural Studio students, so
that they could connect with the people in the community and engage
them in the research process,” Dubois said. “While
the Rural Studio’s major emphasis is on educating Auburn
architecture students, ours would be on teaching landowners ways
to manage their forestland to make it more productive and as profitable
The west Alabama forest
project would use philosophies similar to those of the studio.
“The Rural Studio
students meet with and interview the family they’re going
to build a house for, to learn about the family and what they
need,” Dubois said. “In our west Alabama forestry
project, we’re going to be taking the same approach, getting
to know the forest landowners and how they manage their land and
market their timber now.”
Much of that landowner
information was compiled last summer by Sarah Crim, an AU forestry
graduate student. Living on the Rural Studio campus in Newbern,
Crim extensively interviewed 30 African-American forest landowners
and female forest landowners in Hale County in an effort to characterize
the group, including how they came to own their land and what
their primary goals are with the land.
“Do they sell
timber as soon as it’s ready to cut just to get money to
put food on the table or do they have more long-term plans?”
Dubois said. “And how aware are they of timber as a business?
Do they have any idea what their timber’s really worth,
or do they just sell it to the first person who comes along?”
Having concerned individuals
come into their communities to help them find new markets for
their timber and teach them sound management practices, the landowners
could realize significant increases in forest income and set the
stage for economic improvement in the county. Farther into the
project, Dubois envisions the development of a demonstration forest
in Hale County.
“Our project will
be, in essence, an economic development program,” Dubois
said. “The Rural Studio builds houses; we will build sustainable